Author: Sergei Efimov, Yekaterinburg, Russia
Translated from the Russian by Richard Sills
The West Face of Baruntse
I't was Alexander Mikhailov who first showed me a photo of Baruntse - or rather a photocopy from a German magazine. The beautiful West Face, with a vertical height of about 1000 metres rising to the main peak, was framed by the gigantic cornices of the South East and North Ridges. Until now, no attempt had been made to climb the face, despite the great popularity of this peak among mountaineers from all over the world. Since 1954, when the first ascent of the mountain was made by a New Zealand team, a number of expeditions had reached the summit but they had all ascended by the ridges and none had attempted the West Face.
Suddenly the links in a chain of ideas came together in my head, leading up to the possibility of an ascent of Makalu by its West Face. A first ascent of the West Face of Baruntse would offer our young climbers some excellent preparatory experience of Himalayan conditions at altitudes up to 7000m. Moreover, Baruntse is adjacent to Makalu, so it would offer us a fine opportunity to study our future route and get psychologically accustomed to it. Above all, an expedition to Baruntse would prepare us for an attempt on an 8000m peak such as Annapurna, in order to discover our climbers’ capacity for operating at altitude and enabling us to work out some tactical schemes for group co-operation. Only then would we attempt the West Face of Makalu.
This was the origin of the three-year ‘Himalaya’ programme. The expedition to Baruntse in September and October 1995 was the first phase of the programme. Many climbers from the Sverdlovsk region had previous experience of Himalayan ascents, having taken part in international expeditions organised by the Himalayan Mountaineering Centre which had been set up in Yekaterinburg. The Centre had already organised and conducted several expeditions to 8000m peaks, including the first ascent of the East Ridge of Cho Oyu (8210m), the first ascent of the North Face of Dhaulagiri (8167m), and an ascent of Everest (8848m) from the Tibetan side. But the expedition to Baruntse was virtually the first Himalayan expedition made up exclusively of climbers from the Sverdlovsk region.
On 9 September 1995 the team assembled in Kathmandu. The essential procedures for obtaining permission for the ascent, purchasing provisions and packing our equipment took several days. On 14 September a helicopter transported the whole party and all our gear to the mountain village of Lukla. That day there was considerable cloud cover and the pilot had to circle for a long time, waiting for a break in the clouds so that he could see the landing site. The landing seemed to me quite tense, although the pilots remained calm. ‘We go round and round like that every day!’ said one of the pilots cheerfully as he climbed out of the plane. Russian helicopters have been working successfully in Nepal, transporting people and goods, for several years.
The post-monsoon weather was in no hurry to improve, but we had no time to wait. The following day a group of eight climbers set off for base camp, accompanied by the sirdar, the cook, his assistant and a small group of porters. The three remaining members of the expedition were responsible for transporting all the supplies by helicopter to the site of Base Camp. The journey on foot from Lukla to the foot of Baruntse took us eight days. We crossed the Mera La (5100m), one of the three passes on our route, in deep snow and mist, meandering back and forth among the seracs. On 22 September, when our group reached the site of base camp on the moraine of the Hunku Glacier at 5400m, we were disappointed to find that the helicopter had not yet arrived. Thick cloud in the valleys had made flying impossible. Only the next day, 23 September, was it possible for the helicopter to land near our base camp.
When all the tents had been pitched and the kitchen and mess tents set up, we started planning a reconnaissance of the area and working out how the supply of provisions and equipment would be organised. In order to get acclimatised and to mark the descent route with poles, all ten members of the party twice climbed the South East Ridge to a height of 6200m. According to our plan, two groups were supposed to reach a height of 6500m, but we soon became disorientated in the thick cloud and whiteout conditions and were forced to go back down. Then several days were spent searching for a way through the numerous crevasses below the West Face and ferrying supplies to the foot of the climb at 5900m. After that it was time to get onto the face itself.
There were three members of our assault party
On 3 October Valery Pershin, Yevgeniy Vinogradsky and Sergei Efimov went onto the face to test the rock and to take video pictures. Pershin climbed and fixed four lengths of rope (150 metres). Next day Salavat Khabibullin, Yury Yermachek and Nikolai Zhilin climbed another three lengths of rope and reached the site of Camp 1.
From the diary of Salavat Khabibullin:
Tomorrow three of us are setting out on the climb: Kolya, Yura and I. We suffer the usual pre-departure nervousness. Will everything be all right 7 Vm anxioius about whether there’ll be suitable camp sites on the climb, and how 1 much danger of stonefall there’ll be. Above all, 1 worry about the lengthy snowfields. Will they be firm or old rotten snow? And what if it begins to snow? That will mean avalanches. Well, never mind, we’ll soon find out. Today Valera and Zhoka are at work. They’ve climbed four rope-lengths.
We had chosen for the ascent the central buttress of the West Face. Part of it was overhanging, offering hope of protection from the stones and ice which fell from the face all day long from about 11am to 8pm.
On the photograph, this 1000m face had not looked as inaccessible and dangerous as the real thing. An unstable film of ice covered some parts of the face, and the snow slopes with their vertical grooves looked very steep. This beautiful fluting effect is very characteristic of Himalayan mountains but when you are faced with climbing such vertical ‘beauty’, you begin to feel apprehensive.
From Salavat Khabibullin’s diary again:
Today we made a trial ascent. Wefixed ropes. In places the rocks are covered with ice and we often had to find ways round overhangs. As expected, we couldn’t see anywhere suitable for a bivouac. Perhaps tomorrow, after a few more rope lengths, something will turn up. We can but hope.
On 5 October the five members of the assault party moved onto the pillar, taking with them a tent, fuel, technical equipment, and food for seven days. At the same time, the remaining members of the expedition, Sergei Efimov, Alexandr Mikhailov, Boris Sedusov, Andrei Kuznetsov and Alexandr Veryovkin once again crossed the West Col to reach the South East Ridge.
They climbed to 6800m, fixed ropes at the difficult places and placed poles, so that even in thick mist it would be possible for the assault team to find the descent route from the summit. According to our plan, they would descend by the South East Ridge. In camp, there remained only three Sherpas and the doctor, Sergei Bytchkovsky, who kept his eye on the group slowly pushing on up the West Face.
From Salavat Khabibullin’s diary:
Today was quite a fair climb. Steep rock at about 70 degrees, like a rock ‘lens ’ plastered with ice.
- Valery Pershin, the climbing leader, has climbed Everest from the Tibetan side and has made first ascents of routes on Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri. He has also attempted Nanga Paibat, as a member of Doug Scott’s expedition in 1992.
- Yevgeny Vinogradsky, seven times Champion of the USSR, has climbed Everest twice (in 1992 and 1995), completed the traverse of the four peaks of Kangchenjunga in 1989 and climbed the East Ridge of Cho Oyu in 1991.
- Salavat Khabibulin is an experienced climber, Master of Sport and more than once Champion of Russia. He has reached 8000m on Cho Oyu.
- Nikolai Zhilin and Yury Yermachek, the back-up team, who were visiting the Himalaya for the first time, are also Masters of Sport and have done many ascents to 7500m in the Pamirs and Tien Shan and have more than once been Champions of Russia in the high altitude class.
I climbed up it on front points under an overhang, traversed about 10 metres to a vertical groove fidl of ice.
The ascent was only possible via this narrow trickle of ice justfive or six centimetres wide. The rocks were completely smooth. ing ice screws and hanging etriers from them, I climbed another five metres.
Above me was the beginning of a smooth rock chimney. There were neither cracks for pitons nor holds of any kind. I had to thrutch my way up still wearing crampons. Climbing those seven metres wasn't easy. I remembered that on the ascent of Assan-Ussan in the Pamirs I had to climb a similar chimney, but on that occasion I was climbing in light rock boots.
The section we have climbed was uniquely interesting because of its complexity and variety: icefields, then a section of overhanging rock, then the usual snow again. It feels as if we are close to the ridge. I hope we'll get > onto it tomorrow.
Climbing the almost 1500m route up the face took seven days - seven days of constant physical and psychological tension. Snow pitches alternated with sections of rock, often plastered with ice. Placing protection on such mixed routes is more complicated than on a purely rock or ice route.
When you climb a slope of rotten snow, it’s impossible to assess how reliable your protection is, and when the angle exceeds 30° there is a constant danger of avalanche. On the West Face of Baruntse the angle of the snow sections reached 45°-50°. The steep fluted slope tended to give way under your feet and couldn’t be compacted. Every step demanded a great expenditure of physical and nervous energy. No one could say how reliable his footing was, nor be sure that, at any moment, he would not be swept away in an avalanche. In order to arrange protection, the lead climber literally had to dig his way into the snow to a depth of about a metre in order to reach the ice or rock beneath, where he could an ice screw or hammer in a rock piton. The rock pitches, plastered with ice, had to be climbed in crampons. A lot of time was spent cleaning out cracks for pitons and Friends. Day after day the tense, incessant work continued. There were no good bivouac sites. Every day, 2V» to 3 hours were spent digging out platforms for the tents.
From Salavat Khabibullin’s diary:
We have to accept that we won’t find any compacted snow. All the snow slopes consist of old porous snow with cavities inside. It's the first time I've encountered such snow. On Cho Oyu in 1991 the snow was as dense as asphalt. And tn our own mountains, on Peak Communism, Khan Tengri and Peak Pobeda, there was every kind of snow, but nothing like this! On those peaks, even if the snow was rotten, you could still compact it and make steps, but here you could dig away for half a day and still advance only one rope length. And in order to arrange protection you have to dig your way through to the rock or drive in your ice axe and sit on it, without any particular feeling of security. On the whoe, it feels as if our ascent is dragging on...
We vefinished our daily task of building a platform for the tent. It's just as well that we have a good shovel. It's obvious that we won't find any decent sites for the tent until we get onto the ridge. But it is just possible to build and
shape a platform, and we do it every day. It's become a habit. We are even crawling - literally crawling, not walking - through the snow more quickly and easily now.
After reaching the summit of the mountain, it was only on the ninth day that the climbers got down to base camp. Dirty and unshaven, with sunburned faces, they smiled as they slowly took off their heavy boots, pulled off their clothes, exposed their emaciated bodies to the sun and shared their impressions, which had not yet had time to fade:
Yuri Yermachek: "We didn’t expect it all to take so long ... such snow ... not like anything else ... never seen anything like it!"
Salavat Khabibullin: "On the first day, when we were low down... it was warm ... to be honest it was terrifying. On such steep ground ... the snow’s rotten, it gives way. You don’t kow whether you’ll go with it. You can’t see where to put any protection ... Well, by the second or third day all this becomes the norm. I knew there would be something under the snow. Either rock or ice. You could put in protection... the fear gradually vanished."
Valery Pershin: "We came out onto the summit and there they were - Everest, Lhotse and Makalu stretched out before us like giant wings ..."
The first stage of our programme was over. We had gained the Himalayan experience we needed in order to attempt the West Face of Makalu.
Summary: In September and October 1995, Sergei Efimov led an expedition to Nepal to climb the West Face of Baruntse, 7129m. The assault team, Valery Pershin, Yevgeny Vinogradsky and Salavat Khabibullin, climbed the cl 500m West Face in seven days. Members of their back-up team were Sergei Efimov, Nikolai Zhilin and Yury Yermachek, assisted by Andrei Kuznetsov, Alexandr Mikhailov, Boris Sedusov and Alexandr Veryovkin.
Note: The Baruntse Expedition formed part of the ‘Himalaya* programme, which received the support of the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee for Physical Education, Sport and Tourism and the approval of the Sverdlovsk Regional Government.